Easter Sunday, I struggle to keep up with the Aldi checkout operator. At Aldi they sweep your groceries past the scanner so fast it feels like they hate you. Can’t wait to get rid of you. Zip, zing, zip, they flick your groceries across, like the beads on a Shanghai trader’s abacus.
You cease to exist, you are processed so fast. You blur and blend into the next shopper in the queue. And the next. And so on in a vast, warped, time-space continuum.
Operators ask complete strangers, ‘How are you?’ but so does Mitre, the trained cockatoo at Mitre 10. Don’t waste time trying to tell them. How are you? How ARE you? How are YOU? Every day to every shopper. It must be in the training. This is how they personalise the Aldi experience. You just feel small and slow. Anomie with that, they might as well ask as they flip you their latest catalogue.
And what have you got planned for the rest of the day? Rachel, our regular checkout girl, intrudes, cheerily, brazenly, as if she has every right to know, now that we are deeply bonded in the mystical communion of a commercial transaction, now that we are almost family just by shopping at Aldi. As if we forgot somehow to tell her beforehand or ask her permission or invite her.
No point in taking offence. Rachel doesn’t give a fig. Her casual familiarity masks a total self-absorption and utter indifference to anyone else. That’s how it is with the young in an age of Twitter and Facebook, where friends are people you don’t know and people you don’t know are friends.
Yet Rachel’s question is strategic. She speaks just to fill up her wait time while you are at her mercy; as you scramble to get your things out of her road. Got planned? Rest of the day? Something in her tone suggests you get right out this instant and do it. You are riled and consider telling her the rest of the day will be devoted to hedonism and nuptial bliss. Imagine. She would ask what religion was that? Or which aisle did you find that in?
OK Aldi, time is money, we hear you wanting to sweep us out of your store. Here, you say. Pick up your groceries and get out! Take your clumsy, clutter and go. You sweep us up, too, along with our little lives; the whole inconvenient clutter, the mess and fuss of our existence. To be human is OK if you don’t get in the way of the machine. You need to eat. Good. You must buy our cheap food. Good. So does the next customer. Look sharp before you clog up the works.
They zip things along the zinc counter so fast it’s you can barely get things into your trolley without holding up the whole line of shoppers behind you. Yet something makes you try to keep up.
A woman calls out. Her cheeky voice and her steady blue eyes are those of a much younger person. She is old and small and frail. The years have cut deep lines into her sunburnt features. She hangs on to her trolley for support like a swimmer about to haul themselves out of the pool, her bob of white hair like a mob cap. You can see by her clothes she is poor. She tells me I am fast and then begins to tell me about her son.
My forty-four year old son is at home. Stays in bed until midday. With his clothes on. Sleeps in his clothes. Got ADD and bi-polar. Been married twice. I feel like saying something but I’m afraid to open me mouth. I bite my tongue. What can do you? Can’t say nothing cause of what you get back. Course I have to look after him. Still. I’m 82. What can you do?
‘That’s not right, I say, thinking most of us would kick him out. Surely he has medication.’
‘Yes, he has medication. He takes two sleeping pills each night to get to sleep. Sleep he needs to be wide awake to do nothing the next day. And the next.’
There is nothing I can add. Soon the government will cut off his disability pension as they create another underclass of undeserving. He has driven her half-mad already. God knows what she will do when there is even less money to try to live on.
As I return my trolley, I see her outside unloading her trolley into her mobility scooter. It is taking her a long time. She can barely stand and hangs on to her scooter with one hand. She is talking to herself as she struggles one-handed to fit things into the small bag on the front. As she must struggle to fit into her life, the abusive, aggressive mentally ill depressive man-child at home, the cuckoo in her nest, who has no-one else to look after him; nowhere else to go but who must fight her for her kindness; eat her out of house and home.
The church up the road is full of people but they can keep their Easter service. On the pavement outside the supermarket an old woman fighting to keep her balance as she prepares to venture home to look after him; struggling to keep it all together. This old woman and her son. This is Christ.